Nadine Gordimer Essay - Critical Essays

Nadine Gordimer Short Fiction Analysis

Nadine Gordimer is a distinguished novelist and short-story writer. About Selected Stories, drawn from her earlier volumes of stories, a reviewer said, “the stories are marked by the courage of moral vision and the beauty of artistic complexity. Gordimer examines, with passionate precision, the intricacies both of individual lives and of the wide-ranging political and historical forces that contain them.” About the stories in A Soldier’s Embrace, a reviewer wrote, “Their themes are universal: love and change, political transition, family, memory, madness and infidelity, to name a few. What makes Nadine Gordimer such a valuable—and increasingly valued—novelist and short-story writer is her ability to meet the demands of her political conscience without becoming a propagandist and the challenges of her literary commitment without becoming a disengaged esthete.” Over the course of her career, three of her books were banned in South Africa.

It would be easy for Gordimer to declare self-exile. Unlike James Joyce, however, she chose not to abandon the inhospitable country of her birth, accepting the obligation of citizenship to help make her country better. She did this by practicing her art, for it is an art that enables her diverse compatriots to understand better themselves and one another.

The settings and characters in Gordimer’s stories cut across the whole spectrum of South African life. She writes about black village life and black urban experiences. She writes about the Afrikaans-speaking whites, English-speaking whites, Indians, and others. Her protagonists are as likely to be males as females, and reviewers have commented on her uncanny ability to make her male characters fully realized. In The House Gun, Gordimer ponders the deeply personal question of whether parents can even trust their own child not to commit murder. With amazing range and knowledge, she sheds light on the intricacies of individual lives and on the historical and political forces that shape them.

Reading one of Gordimer’s stories is always exciting, because one does not know what will have caught her interest—urban or rural blacks, urban or rural Boers, leisured or working or revolutionary whites, an African or a European setting. It is a great surprise, for example, to discover a story in the form of a letter from a dead Prague father to the son who predeceased him. It is a made-up letter in which Hermann Kafka tells off ungrateful, congenitally unhappy Franz.

As she has demonstrated again and again during more than thirty years of writing, Gordimer does not restrict her focus to people and scenes that are the most familiar. One marvels in reading “A City of the Dead, a City of the Living,” for example, at what the author, a well-off white woman, knows of black-township life, at the total credibility of characters Samson Moreke and his wife, Nanike. Gordimer’s knowledge and credibility are characteristic of all of her short fiction. “A City of the Dead, a City of the Living,” “Sins of the Third Age,” and “Blinder” could easily be included among the twenty best short stories of the twentieth century.

“Is There Nowhere Else Where We Can Meet?”

Among Gordimer’s most gripping stories are those in which blacks and whites are at cross-purposes. “Is There Nowhere Else Where We Can Meet?” from The Soft Voice of the Serpent, and Other Stories, is one of the simplest and best of this group. On a country road, a young white woman’s handbag is torn from her by a passing local, whose bedraggled condition had evoked the woman’s pity. The day is very cold, yet he is shoeless and dressed in rags. When she attains safety and has brought her fear under control, she decides not to seek aid or inform the police. “What did I fight for” she thinks. “Why didn’t I give him the money and let him go? His red eyes, and the smell and those cracks in his feet, fissures, erosion.”

“Six Feet of the Country”

The title piece of Gordimer’s 1956 collection, Six Feet of the Country, is another exceptional story. A young black laborer walks from Rhodesia to find work in South Africa, where he has family who are employed on a weekend farm of a white Johannesburg couple. When he arrives at the farm, the illegal immigrant becomes ill and dies. There ensues a prolonged entanglement with the authorities, who insist on having the body so that it can be examined and the bureaucratic requirement for a statement of the cause of death can be fulfilled. With great reluctance, the family surrenders the body. When at last the casket is returned to the farm for burial, they discover that the body in it is that of a stranger. In the course of spinning out a plot about the fate of a corpse, Gordimer provides great insight into the lives of the farm laborers, the proprietors, and the police official, and she also reveals the relative inability of the laborers to deal with illness and the bureaucracy.

“A Chip of Glass Ruby”

“A Chip of Glass Ruby,” in Not for Publication, and Other Stories, is about an Indian family in the Transvaal. The wife and mother is loving and unassuming and a very competent manager of a household that includes nine children. To the chagrin of her husband, Bamjee, she is also a political activist. It makes no sense to him that she takes grave risks for blacks, who are regarded as lower even than Indians. During the course of the story, she is arrested and imprisoned and participates in a prison hunger strike. Bamjee, a poor, small-time fruit and vegetable dealer, cannot understand any of this: He asks, “‘What for?’ Again and again: ‘What for?’” His birthday comes, and he himself does not even remember. The eldest daughter brings word from her mother, in the prison, however, that his birthday must not be forgotten. Bamjee is moved and begins to have a glimmer of understanding of the wonderful woman who is his wife. As the daughter explains: “It’s because she always remembers; remembers everything—people without somewhere to live, hungry kids, boys who can’t get educated—remembers all the time. That’s how Ma is.”

“The Intruder”

“The Intruder,” which appears in Livingstone’s Companions, focuses on the decadence of an upper-class man of English descent. After shedding his last wife, hard-drinking, stay-out-late James Seago takes up with the beautiful teenage daughter of Mrs. Clegg, a woman of his age who affects a bohemian morality. Seago refers to the daughter, Marie, whom he uses sexually and enjoys having in his lap as he drinks, as his teenage doll, his marmoset, his rabbit. Because he has financial problems, Seago is plausibly able to postpone committing himself to her in marriage. Once they are married, Seago’s irresponsible life of nightly partying does not change. Having married his pet, however, he must live with her, and so they set up housekeeping in an unpleasant flat. Marie becomes pregnant. The arrival of a child will force changes in Seago’s way of life: For one thing, they will have to find living quarters more suitable for a child; for another, his wife-pet will have to give her primary attention to the child, not him. Arriving home early one morning after a night of partying, they fall into bed exhausted. A few hours later, Marie awakens hungry. She wanders out of the bedroom and finds the rest of the flat a wreck. All the kitchen staples have been spilled or thrown about; toothpaste is smeared about the bathroom. In the living room, on one of the sofa cushions, is “a slime of contraceptive jelly with haircombings—hers.” Gordimer only hints at the perpetrator. It seems more than likely, though, that it is James Seago, who again is rebelling at the prospect of being forced into a responsible mode of life.


In “Abroad,” the main character is an Afrikaner....

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